Contact Us    
Anything Goes in Prose

The Loss of Modesty.

by Barnabas
December 4, 2002

Bookmark and Share

Anything Goes in Prose_Barnabas-The Loss of Modesty.
“You have something in your mouth that I wouldn’t have in my hand.”
--A grandmother to a young grandson, ca 1945
This is commentary about a trend, not about a specific news item.

Years ago, in Seven Sins and Seven Virtues, Karl Olsson said that comparing sexuality with digestion was like comparing a high-tension wire with a water hose. You can play with a water hose without real damage ensuing, but the high-tension wire is something else again. Sex is a lot more than a bodily function.

I was a college graduate with an English major before I read an explicit description of sexual intercourse in a major, unbanned novel: O’Hara’s Ten North Frederick. This doesn’t mean that O’Hara was first, of course, and it depends on your definition of “major novel,” but for me it was a turning point.

The floodgates opened. The pre-eminent novelist John Updike, hailed by many as a Christian writer because of his worldview, demonstrates his expertise in human sexual anatomy in virtually every novel of his that I have read over the past forty years. Not every one of his contemporaries followed his lead, but the least to be said is that sex, and what used to be called obscene language, are now a staple of literature.

The apotheosis came early on, in the late sixties or early seventies, when Pamela Hansford-Johnson wrote a novel (Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s) about a couple of playwrights determined to write a play too filthy to be produced. But it gets produced. The audience doesn’t notice the filth and like the play. In frustration, the playwrights boo their own work on opening night.

After a couple of experiments myself in mildly pushing the edge of acceptability (my readership, such as it is, is a conservative group) in fiction, and after thinking it over quite a bit, I have come to the conclusion that such writing is self-defeating. Like the inevitable car-chase in a certain kind of movie, or the bare-butt flashed in the first seasons of "NYPD Blue", it momentarily blows the story and theme write off the page. What one remembers most about Pulp Fiction is that one four-letter verb in all its forms is used as adjective, adverb, verb, and noun.

Helping me to this conclusion was a recent reading of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, though it could have been almost any minor classic written before 1940. Sexual desire is big, but sexual activity is never explicit. Anna Karenina tells us more about adultery than we need to know, but Tolstoy doesn’t describe what Anna and Vronsky actually did. Grown-ups know what they did, and do not require a play-by-play report.

To publish or present is to lose control of your work. So here are a couple of standards that applied to the main body of literature from the Renaissance until World War II, I may be restating them, but I am not making them up.
1) If you wouldn’t do it in front of your kids, don’t show it or describe it in print.
2) If you wouldn’t say it to your grandmother, don’t say it in print or on video.

Post a Comment

Send Us Your Opinion
(Comments are moderated.)
Your Name:*

Your E-Mail Address:*
(Confidential. Will not be published.)


Note: In order to control automated spam submissions, URLs are no longer permitted in this form.

Please type the letters you see above.


Bookmark and Share

Sign up to receive an e-mail notice when new articles by this author are published. Your address remains confidential, and you may cancel at any time. A confirmation email will be sent.

Your e-mail address:
Anything Goes in Prose
po Books
Now Available!

Teachings of a Three Year Old... Turned Tyke,
by Hal Evan Caplan.

A father learns from the wisdom of his toddler.

More Information.

More by Barnabas
Barnabas Says Goodbye
Moving on, not moving out.
by Barnabas, 1/19/05
Seats on the Fifty-Yard Line
Yet another American value.
by Barnabas, 1/12/05
Ethical Endgame
When children become sexual slaves.
by Barnabas, 12/15/04
Eighteen Years on Death Row
We have redefined 'speedy trial' and 'cruel and unusual.'
by Barnabas, 12/8/04
Hard on Drugs, Soft in the Head
Legalizing marijuana.
by Barnabas, 12/1/04
Wesley and Wal-Mart
Destructive competition as a stinky enterprise.
by Barnabas, 11/24/04
The Mandate to Govern
Third party time.
by Barnabas, 11/17/04
» Complete List (137)

Recently Published
View Article Loyola's Most Loyal Fan
A tribute to the team chaplain
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 3/23/18
Nor Easter Alert
A troubling forecast for a nation in need of God
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 3/16/18
A Tribute to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood
Looking back to where it all began PLUS; There Goes the Neighborhood
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 3/9/18
A Prayer for the Washington State Legislature
Remembering Billy Graham's example
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 3/2/18
A Sentry of the Past Century
Remembering Billy Graham; PLUS, Cross Words
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 2/23/18
Another St. Valentine's Day Massacre
When will the craziness stop?
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 2/16/18
Speaking of the Winter Olympics
A prayer for our athletes and our world
by Greg Asimakoupoulos, 2/9/18

Get the Partial Observer's
'recently published' headlines via RSS.

RSS Feed for Recently Published PO Articles    What is RSS?

Reproduction of original material from The Partial Observer without written permission is strictly prohibited.
The opinions expressed by site contributors do not necessarily reflect those of the editors.
Copyright ©2000-2018 partialobserver.com. All rights reserved.
Home · Site Map · Top